When the two musicians behind electronic group Sofi Tukker found out that their bossa nova–inflected house music had earned them a Grammy nomination last December, their excitement was threaded with disbelief and a little confusion. At first, Sophie Hawley-Weld and Tucker Halpern weren't sure how it happened, or what would come next.
"We never thought our music would be considered for this kind of thing," Hawley-Weld, 24, told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. "We thought it might be more niche, not something that would be recognized by any kind of major, established institution like the Recording Academy."
Prior to their nomination — in the Best Dance Recording category — Sofi Tukker were mid-course on a career trajectory that any new artist hoping to make it in 2017 might outline on a vision board. Their debut single, "Drinkee," was a big hit on Spotify (currently at over 22 million plays) and had been featured in an Apple ad. By the time nominations were announced, the duo had already been booked to perform at this year's Coachella Music and Arts festival, billed beneath boldfaced names like Beyoncé and Radiohead.
For them, Grammy recognition was less a fantasy than an answer to a wish they hadn't thought to make — like learning of a generous inheritance from a long-lost relative. In the weeks since their nomination, they've had more time to process what it means, and witnessed firsthand the ways in which even proximity to the award remains a unique kind of currency.
"[To] our parents' friends — who would never know or respect, necessarily, what we were doing or that we're in a band — now, when you say, 'We're nominated for a Grammy,' they're like, 'Oh my god!'" Halpern, 26, said, with a laugh. "It's a funny thing, but it changes people's attitude about what we're doing, or even our life decisions."
For young artists who are building their careers at a time of intense fragmentation in the music industry — when success is often the product of bottom-up momentum rather than top-down authority — a pre-internet institution like the Grammys can seem ancillary or antiquated. Frank Ocean, whose sophomore album Blonde was one of the most celebrated of last year, famously declined to submit it for consideration by the Recording Academy (he called the organization "dated"). And there are rumors that even some A-listers who were nominated, including Drake and Justin Bieber, are planning to skip out on the ceremony this year.
But for every Grammy skeptic in the new class of music stars, there are those who remain under its durable spell. Chance the Rapper, whose penchant for bucking industry norms has earned him a reputation as one of his generation's most forward-thinking artists, nevertheless embraced the Grammys last year, aggressively campaigning for his own share of shiny gramophone statues (he was nominated for seven) and implicitly testifying to their enduring hold on popular music's collective imagination.
In interviews with BuzzFeed News, other first-time nominees described the Grammys as an awesome (though not make-or-break) honor, with both sentimental and professional value.
"The only award I've ever really won that was related to music was like a high school [theater] award, and I used to fantasize about that one day being replaced by a Grammy," Gallant told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. The 25-year-old R&B singer, whose debut album Ology is currently nominated for Best Urban Contemporary Album, won raves early on in his career for his songs on music blogs — one, "Weight in Gold," was chosen as the first world premiere on Apple Music's radio station Beats 1.
But Gallant said the "weight and prestige" of the Grammys, which he estimates he's watched from home every year of the last decade, made his own nomination a special kind of milestone. "It's like going from the internet world to, I guess, the real world," he said. "It's something I can look back on and know that this wasn't just some dream that I had."
Like Gallant, country music singer Kelsea Ballerini, 23, grew up watching the Grammys on TV — an annual ritual with her mother at their home in east Tennessee. Nominated in the Best New Artist category this year, she said watching Grammy performances as an adolescent helped give shape to her ambitions.
"I think it was 2006 when Kelly Clarkson did 'Because of You' on the Grammys stage," Ballerini told BuzzFeed News. "I just remember that being a moment where I was like, 'She doesn't need anything else but that song and that voice,' just a really cool moment for me as an aspiring songwriter."
Ballerini, who released her country-pop debut The First Time in 2015, has had more prior attention from traditional gatekeepers than most of her peers. Along with the Chainsmokers, she's one of only two Best New Artist nominees to have had a top 20 song on the radio. What makes a Grammy nomination distinct, she said, was knowing that Academy voters come from all aspects of the music industry, and from all different genres.
"I would love to say that I didn't have my alarm set [the morning nominations were announced], that I just casually forgot," she said, momentarily performing indifference. "But, I mean, I really cared a lot. I really, really was very hopeful."
Even the highest hopes, of course, can eventually turn earthbound. If the new generation of musicians sees its Grammy dreams deferred, or if more novel sources of validation online encroach on their territory, the awards may lose more of their luster. Even Ocean, who won two Grammys at his first and only appearance at the ceremony in 2013, admitted to being drawn in initially by their "nostalgic significance."
For now, though, the Academy maintains its hold.
"All of my life I've wanted this," said D.R.A.M. (aka Big Baby D.R.A.M.) of his nomination in the Best Rap/Sung Performance category for "Broccoli" featuring Lil Yachty. His favorite part about being nominated, he said, was the honorific that has since preceded his name. "Now I call myself: 'Grammy-Nominated Big Baby D.R.A.M.'"
Reggie Ugwu is a features writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Reggie Ugwu at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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